Twelve Angry Men
Written by Reginald Rose
Adapted for the stage by Sherman L. Sergel
Directed by Matt Schicker
St. Bart's Players (www.aol.com/bartsweb)
St. Bartholomew's Church,
Non-union production /
Reviewed by Judd Hollander
Reasonable doubt. An abstract phrase for most people usually reserved for the trial portion of an episode of "Law and Order." However the St. Bart's Players put the concept front and center in a stirring (and involving) production of Reginald Rose's 12 Angry Men. (This work was originally written as a teleplay in 1954, made into a film in 1957 and later adapted for the stage.)
In a New York City jury room on a stifling hot late summer day in 1953, 12 jurors (despite the title, the cast consists of men and women) are about to deliberate on a murder case. A young man (age 19) is accused of stabbing his father to death and if found guilty, will be sentenced to die. The defendant is also a member of a minority group, though it's never made clear which one.
Most of the jurors are more than ready to vote "guilty," send the accused to the chair (they didn't have lethal injection in 1953), and get back to their lives. (One person is in a rush to leave because he has tickets to a Yankee game.) But Juror # 8 (played by Ken Altman; there are no names here) has doubts about the case and wants some things clarified before he votes. Reluctantly at first, the rest of the jury members are slowly drawn into the case as they examine evidence, go over witness testimony and reconstruct the crime. As the hands of the clock on the wall move forward - the story takes place in about 90 minutes of real time - votes begin to shift (and shift again), as argument are made, rejected and considered; with the truth of the matter more than once pushed into the background as hidden emotions and prejudices emerge.
When Rose originally wrote this story the McCarthy era was coming to an end. It was a time of great paranoia and much easier (and safer) for people to go along with the majority rather than stand up for what they believed in - as Juror # 8 does here. Excellently portrayed by Altman, Juror # 8 is the most nondescript person of the bunch, he's not old, he's not loud, he's not particularly handsome, and has no quirky qualities or garments. He's just an "everyman" with a strong sense of right and wrong. Altman gives the character a quiet dignity, presenting someone who will not change his vote simply because it's convenient for everyone else. He's also a bit of an idealist, as shown early on where he places his trust in the rest of the jurors and leaves it up to them as to whether to continue deliberations.
While only referred to by numbers in the program, each of the jury members is drawn as a flesh and blood figure, with a cast that brings them all powerfully to life. Neal Jones is wonderful as Juror #3, (and quite reminiscent of Lee J. Cobb, who played the role in the 1957 movie), a belligerent man dealing with his own father and son issues, and who is so sure the defendant is guilty, he has no patience with anyone who doesn't think the way he does. Also deserving of mention is Brian Haggerty as Juror #9, an old man who still has his dignity and pride and who will not be pushed around by anyone, or let anyone else be pushed around either. Other standouts include Leslie Engel (Juror #4) and Joe Gambino as the Jury Foreman, both of who try to lend a rational voice to the proceedings.
The choice to present the show with a cast of men and women is an interesting touch and the idea works pretty well, especially with the casting of Penelope Robb as Juror #10. Coming into the jury room with perhaps the strongest prejudice of all, she continually refers to the defendant as one of "those people." Angry and full of hate, she gives a telling climatic speech that reveals much about the character and how she lives. (She also does some wonderful little business while knitting when she goes off into a corner.) The only thing with the women that doesn't ring quite true is the wigs they wear, many of which simply don't look as real as they should.
One major problem with the show is the way it's staged, though logistics probably played more of a role in the outcome than artistic decisions. The space the company usually uses at the church is under renovation, with this production taking place in a much smaller venue. While the location works nicely as a claustrophobic jury room, making for close quarters and short tempers, the way the characters are seated and blocked make it impossible for the audience to see the action completely, as one or more of the actors are always obstructing some of the sightlines. (Full Disclosure: this reviewer sat in the front row and still couldn't see everything and can only guess at how bad it was about 20 rows back. Compounding the problem was that all the seats were on the same level and the stage itself was too low to the ground.)
Another questionable decision was the inclusion of an intermission in the play and where it was placed. The show really didn't need one, and it seems to have been added only to give the audience a bathroom break and to allow the company time to sell concessions. Additionally, the break occurred right in the middle of a dramatic sequence and when the actors came on for Act Two taking the same positions, it evoked laughter from the audience in what should have been a very quiet moment. If an intermission was indeed necessary, simply having the jury foreman calling for a break in deliberations would have worked much better.
Other than the above-mentioned problems the direction works quite well and Schicker should be credited with being able to bring out a surprising amount of humor (much of this coming from the women) and thus adding an extra layer to what is normally a very serious show. The costumes by Meredith Neal fit the period nicely, the set by Carl Tallent is very realistic and the lighting by Mike Gugliotti was nicely done. There were some problems with the sound in the beginning (when we hear the voice of the Judge -Victor Van Etten) but it soon straightened itself out.
At its heart 12 Angry Men is the tale of one man standing up where others would (and do) crumble when push comes to shove. The play delivers a sobering lesson on the fragility of justice and despite the various problems this particular production is saddled with, the message, thanks to a stellar cast and strong direction, comes through loud and clear.
Also in the cast are Danielle Giorgetti, Jonah Rosen, Jill Conklin, Ulises Giberga, Leni Tabb and Max Cohen.
Copyright 2008 by Judd Hollander
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